10 Ways To Keep Each Other Safe

Three years ago, I sat in my therapist’s office with my face in my hands. I wanted to look anywhere but at her because she was looking at me, she was waiting for me to release whatever had me wound up and fidgeting. “I’ve been reading the news,” I finally said. Our sessions often opened with a long silence followed by me trying to connect with her life, her as a person, her as someone who was not me.

She drew her eyebrows together in concern. “How long has this been going on?”

It had been maybe four weeks. She and I had been over this before. The news wasn’t safe for me. It still isn’t. Honestly, the news isn’t safe for most people. You don’t have to be a survivor of abuse with a stress disorder to be traumatized by modern media. You no longer have to go to war to be directly injured by war. Or, in the day of #RayRice and #WhyIStayed, you don’t have to be abused to be affected by abuse.

It seems like a third of my Facebook friends list has no understanding of this concept. They hit “Share” when a horrifying image or article pops up in their feed. I believe they are trying to do good. They are disturbed by what they see. They are passing it on because they believe others need to know. I agree. When there is hate in the world, we need to shine light on it as a collective. The first step to solving any problem is becoming aware of the problem. However, there are a few rules I’d like my friends to know before they hit “Share,” whether they are sharing video, image or text and whether it pertains to human or animal cruelty. When these rules aren’t followed, the result is that they are passing on the hate rather than inspiring compassion. (FYI: For those wary of TRIGGERS, a * precedes rules hosting triggers.)

1. USE YOUR WORDS This is not just something we tell toddlers. Stop and consider why you feel the need to share. It might be helpful to use the template “When I see ____, I feel ____ .” If you are unable to form a clear statement indicating your purpose in passing it on, you have no business passing it on.

2. PREFACE CONTENT WITH THE WORDS “TRIGGER WARNING.” If there are graphic images or descriptions in what your are sharing, whether it is animal abuse, poverty, sex or war, slap “trigger warning” before the content you are sharing. Bonus points if you identify what is triggering. Example: TRIGGER WARNING: images with blood, animal cruelty. This allows readers to collect themselves mentally or come back to it when they are in a place with no kids, feel safe, etc.

*3. LINK TO CONTENT RATHER THAN POSTING IT DIRECTLY This is a respect issue. Providing a link means your friends and readers can choose whether they will click it. I respect that you may choose not to read this list. That is your choice. If you post an image of a father screaming over his dead child, and I am scrolling through my feed, I am going to see the picture before I can choose not to see the picture. You know, unless I quit social media. You can bet I’m going to unfriend you before I do that. If everyone who dislikes your visual assault unfriends you, the only people left are the ones who already know. In that case, you have impacted your ability to reach anyone new. You are now stuck preaching to the choir.

*4. IF YOU WOULDN’T SHARE IT IN PERSON, DON’T SHARE IT ONLINE Would you carry around a high-resolution image of hard-core sex acts as you went about your day in public? One that was large enough that everyone who passed you would see and understand it? No? How about death-porn? How about mutilated cats?

*5. REMEMBER THAT NOT JUST YOUR FRIENDS ARE WATCHING Maybe you spend your Fridays outside Planned Parenthood with gory and disturbing images because people need to know. Really? Does my highly sensitive eight-year-old NEED TO KNOW about broken fetuses? Even if giving him nightmares would endear me to your cause, when I have to stay up all night with him I am less likely to want more children and more likely to use birth control and empathize with women who recognized that they were unready for parenthood. I honestly don’t mean that in a snarky way.

The same is true for my Facebook feed. I frequently called my kids over to share your videos of happy puppies or laughing babies. Not anymore. We live in a time where we literally have the world at our fingertips. If we want to know, we can find out. And what we don’t want to know, we often are told.

6. BE AWARE YOU ARE LOOKING AT /READING PORNOGRAPHY Dictionary.com defines pornography as “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit.” Do your research. There are whole categories of porn that have nothing to do with sex and everything to do with brutal arousal. See number four. (Please note: arousal is not always a positive experience.)

*7. CONSIDER THE FEELINGS OF THE SOURCE Okay, this one really pisses me off. Those dead babies? Did you talk to their parents before you decided to exploit them for political gain? Did you ask the father who is screaming whether or not he wants the world to witness this horribly intimate moment? Did the images come from a trusted source?

8. CONSIDER YOUR OWN FEELINGS Go back to number one. If you are unable to articulate why you feel compelled to share, don’t. You are overstimulated. Our human response is to gush, “Oh my God. This is awful. I have to pass it on so I am not alone in feeling this.” We don’t want to be alone with our fear. We reach out to others because it is a way to feel safe. Still, we need to think before we speak. I’m not saying be alone in your pain. Reach out with caution, querying an individual if they are open to receiving what has moved you. Maybe put a dollar in a donation jar in the meantime. When you get to $20, find a way to help the people/animals you are worried about.

9. DETERMINE IF SHARING IS THE SAME THING AS HELPING Because, chances are, hitting “Share” is just your way of passing the emotional buck. Hitting “Share” is quick and easy and there! You’ve done your good deed for the day. When, in fact, you’ve done very little. It’s entirely possible all you’ve accomplished is unintentionally triggering an episode of severe anxiety in someone who you did not give the chance to mentally brace themselves before absorbing your explicit material.

10. OBSERVE THE GOLDEN RULE If you wish you hadn’t seen it, don’t share it with anyone else. This is a critical media sharing practice as it keeps individuals and families safe from relapse into issues of mental illness. For example, viewing unexpected images of bodies for PTSD vets of any country can cause flashbacks of war, triggering depression and suicide. This is not an overstatement. For others, it may trigger feelings of unsafety, paranoia and irritability that last weeks, or a panic attack that only lasts minutes. While the compulsion to share and get word out about global atrocity can be wonderful, please realize that posting an image in a social media feed where people will see and absorb it before they can choose to is, simply, an act of terror. Many of us have lived through wars in different forms. Even those of us that haven’t can still be hurt by images. 

Frustration aside, what I am advocating here is compassion. Whether you agree with the use of trigger warnings as a means to maintain the agency of trauma survivors, you still have a voice. If your goal is to pass on hurt, continue sharing graphic material with no reflection. If your goal is to elicit empathy for the disenfranchised, practice respect for the disenfranchised your peers by using your words to articulate why we should care and what we can do to help.

20 Ways 9/11 Changed My Life as an American Muslim

On 9/11, my husband and I stood in our living room. The TV was on and I remember trying to turn my body to force my eyes to look away. The second plane hit. My husband’s hand covered his mouth. He felt too far away. I couldn’t move closer. One of us was saying, “Those people. All the people. Why would anyone do this?”

At that time, we were learning to be practicing Muslims. I helped my university Muslim Student Union set up interfaith dinners where we sat with college students and professors answering any and all questions. Islam was unpopular and poorly received. As is the way with the unknown, it was vilified and feared. I was happy to take part in peaceful, global education. I willingly represented “other” in order to demystify a presence that came to America with slave trade.

And then 9/11 happened. My world collapsed with the towers. I went to my classes. One of my instructors disappeared every five minutes to try to contact his daughter. I hugged him. I whispered the words over and over to myself that my husband had whispered to me before he clicked off the TV, “Please don’t let this be Muslims.”

Over the next 13 years, my relationship with and to Islam evolved based on this one act of terror and the response of my home country.

1. I became a suspect. Despite being an anti-war pacifist I, along with my husband, was profiled as potentially violent and in-the-know. There was a large police presence everywhere I went. A helicopter hovered above our apartment for hours daily until the next week’s end. The FBI was at our mosque that day and every day after for several months searching for a sleeper cell. Our phones stopped and started working again, but the reception was staticky and there was clicking anytime I talked to my family. I was convinced we were wire-tapped.

2. I was afraid to go outside. If I stayed inside, I couldn’t mess up, Except maybe with my words which I policed carefully. I couldn’t speed, I couldn’t frighten anyone, I couldn’t break any law no matter how tenuous and therefore couldn’t be thrown in Gitmo.

3. I began to actively self-censor by talking to the air. I reconsidered every word out of my mouth. The Arabic phrases I’d been using to express hope were replaced with the English equivalent. I frequently announced how much I hated al-Qaeda to the air when I was alone. I became hyper-aware of trigger words like “jihad,” which I had previously used on a regular basis to describe my personal struggles and which frequently popped up in the materials for one of my classes on the history of the Middle East. I apologized to the nobody I was sure was listening when I punned or let a trigger word slip. My friends and family did the same.

4. I changed the way I dressed. I used to wear comfortable, loose clothes that covered my arms and legs. I kept the headscarf I carried for prayer hidden in my purse instead of draped around my neck. I stopped reading the Qur’an between classes. I began pushing up my sleeves when in groups so people would not worry that I was conservative. I hoped they wouldn’t even remember that I was Muslim.

5. I walked everywhere with a friend during the day. As a woman, I already practiced this habit at night. On-campus violence against Muslims happened on my campus to people I knew. I didn’t want it to happen to me.

6. I stopped answering the door. If I wasn’t expecting someone (and even when I was), my husband or I would tiptoe to the peephole to see if I could identify whoever stood outside as a trusted and safe individual who was not going to exercise vigilante justice on us or deliver us to Gitmo. We had the numbers for both a lawyer and an FBI agent just in case.

7. I stopped going to group functions. Worse than being a Muslim was being in a group of Muslims. What if I spoke to someone who turned out to be a part of al-Qaeda? It could happen. And if it did, I would be dragged off to Gitmo.

8. I stopped going to the mosque. This is particularly intriguing to me because I had not started attending services at the mosque until public response to 9/11 triggered intense feelings of solidarity with my community. In fact, for a long time the mosque was the only place I felt safe and understood. I regularly attended seminars, luncheons and dropped in to make my five daily prayers. Then, someone tried to burn it down. They were never caught. I was exhausted by wondering if they would try again while I was praying, and I knew I couldn’t trust the police to keep me safe. Based on the news, they were just as likely to find reason to pack me off to Gitmo.

9. I stopped opening packages that came in the mail. I knew they probably weren’t bombs, but I couldn’t be sure they weren’t bombs. I once screamed at my son for carrying a package to me from the front door because I was certain it would blow him to pieces. This went on until 2012, but by then I had shifted from “religious” to “spiritual.”

10. I left public play spaces if my son said an Arabic word or I had performed any action that might reveal me as Arab or Muslim. My history is littered with incidents of Christian Americans approaching me to advise me to save my soul or others asking where I was from (born in Texas) and telling me I should “go home.” I am half-Lebanese and inherited many Middle Eastern features. My first son was born a mirror to me. I couldn’t bear the thought of that happening to my him. More, though, I was afraid of physical violence against our persons.

11. I hid all physical evidence in my home that I was Arab or Muslim. This includes the Lebanese flag that used to hang in my bedroom, the “I LOVE LEBANON” t-shirts I gardened in, my prayer beads, scarves and carpets, my family photo albums, my Arabic coffee pots, cups and saucers, my Qur’an and its reading/display stand, and any framed art with Arabic script in it. That way, when non-Muslims came over, they could feel safe and they wouldn’t later try to hurt me.

12. I courted new relationships for months before revealing my religious beliefs. I had to be certain the person was not a gun owner and knew what people and areas were actually included in the Middle East. And when I did reveal myself, I began from the space that I was born and raised in America and I always thought I would join the military when I grew up. I followed that with an argument for why Islam was a feminist movement and wasn’t it fascinating that Muslim women have more rights than American women? I had about a fifty percent retention ratio.

13. I started a blog addressing representations of Muslims in media post-9/11. It had good readership, but I was afraid someone would link it to me. Multiple articles were picked up on blogs discussing race and religion in America.I was proud to be a voice for change, much like I was a representative for interfaith understanding pre-9/11, but I had a family to think about, and I couldn’t keep them safe if I drew attention as a Muslim. The blog was called Islam on My Side. Someone else owns that domain now.

14. I prayed for world peace. During my five daily prayers, which I hadn’t become attentive to until after I felt America was trying to rip away my  religious freedom, I often spent an extended time in prostration praying for the victims of violence both in the name of and against the name of Islam. I prayed for their families, their souls, and for their lasting positive legacies. I don’t believe in violence as a means of education or peace. Violence begets violence. And since I can’t watch vacuum commercials without weeping, the knowledge that someone perverted my faith to perpetrate crimes periodically destroys me. Worse is the knowledge that hundreds of America’s children have been sent to witness atrocity  and die in the name of perpetrating violence on perpetrators of violence in order to instruct them perpetration of violence is unacceptable.

15. I learned how to be invisible. I grew my hair long enough to hide my face. My anxiety reached an all time high after my second son was born. I grew my hair long and wore baggy clothes. I practiced silence. I went unnoticed until, with the help of medication, I snapped out of deep depression, chopped off my hair and began to stand up straight and look people in the eye. I had been so good at hiding that my neighbor of two years with whom I had spent several hours talking did not know who I was when I changed my hair and clothes. Another man I had known for years couldn’t place me at all, frank in his disbelief that I was his student’s mother. Interestingly, I found that cutting off my hair also cut ties with my public Muslim identity because my visual difference was so stark.

16. So, I stopped talking about Islam altogether. I stopped defending, I stopped mentioning, I stopped praying, I stopped being Muslim. I separated myself entirely from that identity.

17. I learned I could feel safe if I believed no one saw me as Arab, Brown, or Muslim. And it was so heady a feeling that I rolled with it, recognizing that I now had access to previously White only privileges. With the new all-access pass, I could keep my children safe from prying eyes.

18. I realized that, even if I choose to present myself as a White, Non-Muslim American, I am still seen as a Brown and Muslim or Other. My neighbor brought me a vitriolic chain-mail that was obvious in its intent to harm Muslims by propagating hatred and fear. He asked me which parts were true. I realized that, despite my describing myself as anti-religion, he still sees me as Muslim because he sees me as brown. I should have known when he leaned into my personal space to ask, “What are you? You look like you’re something else. What are you?” My knee-jerk response was, “Human.” My spoken answer was, “Well, my dad is Lebanese but my mom is from Boston.”

19. I chose to defend Islam and educate rather than deny and hide. I informed my neighbor that the email was an offensive lot of bunk, gave him a short lesson on Islamic history, encouraged him to research contexts if he chooses to learn more about Islam and leant him a Qur’an when he asked for one.

20. I watch my kids very closely when they play outside. Despite the pleasant face of the above exchange and horror of the neighbor’s wife that he would even show me something so insidious (along with the promise of garden goodies), I am aware of the signs. After all, I grew up in the Bible Belt where every other statement was an invitation to seek forgiveness from Jesus for being born to such wickedness and every other phone call was filled with heavy breathing or promises of violence against us, the damned. Perhaps my neighbor genuinely wants to learn about the faith I grew up with rather than seeking a loophole through which he can appeal to my feminine sensibilities and save me and my children. It’s possible. But I will be damned if I fall back into the trap of trusting White America to protect my freedom. As President George W. Bush said, “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, can’t get fooled again.”

You Are One of the Reasons Why I Stayed

As the media machine shines its unrelenting spotlight into the personal life of yet one more victim, the internet scrambles to separate itself into a frenzy of individual voices, although they mostly shout the same thing: Janay Rice is a fool. She has the resources. She is only staying for the money.

The well-meaning state they support her in moving on. They do so by telling her he is not worth loving. That he is hopeless. That she is stupid to make any other choice than the one they see as obvious. Because, how can she love him or want to be with her husband if he is a person who hurt/s her?

I am intimate with the answer: We accept the love we believe we deserve.

In Frozen, Elsa is taught that if people get hurt, it’s her fault. She needs to hide an aspect of herself and only breaks free when she believes she’s lost everything. “Conceal it. Don’t feel it.” This is typical for abused women.

The majority of abuse is enacted through mind games. First, the abuser wears his victim down through scare tactics and confusion. He hurts her and tells her the ways in which she deserved it. He tells her she imagined it. He tells her no one will believe her because she is a person of little value. He tells her he loves her. He tells her no one else will ever love her. He gives her good and beautiful memories so she will know what she will lose if she moves on. He lets her see he is complicated and hurts and that he, too, is in need. He tells her only she can save him. He could never trust anyone else this way. He wears her down until she believes that what she has is good, that the world outside what he has constructed for her is a far cry short of what she has if she stays.

Of course she stays. Outside, her friends and family are telling her she has wasted how much of her life? They call her names and talk over her when she tries to explain. Some of them stop speaking to her altogether because they won’t watch her self-destruct. Some fill in the blanks of her story with their own assessments of the situation, their opinion of her being if she is a woman this has happened to, she allowed it. In the case of Janay Rice, claims boil down to her prostituting her body as a punching bag for a multi-million dollar payday.

If Janay Rice does not already have a low sense of self-worth, rest assured that she will on the other side of this debacle. If her husband hasn’t already pulped her self-esteem, the public response will have.

The “conversation” is insane. In response to a series of Tweets I published yesterday criticizing the public shaming of an abuse victim as unhelpful and race-based, I was told that I should be beaten up by a man. He would be lucky to beat me up because I would stay. I was accused of arguing for a woman to stay in an abusive relationship and told I needed to be abused so that I would change my mind.

That is exactly the problem. That is the reason why I stayed.

Until, as a society, we recognize abuse as an addiction to be rehabilitated–until we see abusers as their victims see them–we cannot help the victims. By labeling abusers as hopeless, we give their victims little choice–they can stay with what they have been trained to think of as security, or they can lose everything forever. Partner, parent, lover, every inch of life and space built all lost. For most victims, this is the difference between having a home and food and being homeless. But abuse is insidious and happens at every level. It is an equal opportunity humbug. So for some victims, leaving their abuser makes what has happened public PLUS all the losses. If she is wealthy, we will all look at her and shake our heads and tell her she had the means to change things. What is she, stupid?

Honestly, hasn’t the victim been scrutinized enough?

I stayed because he told me I deserved it and you made me believe it was true.
What if, instead of finger-wagging and adding to the shame a victim already feels, we gave victims a safe place to regrow positive ideas about themselves while we assessed the mental health needs of their abusers? I’ve written here about my abusers changing their patterns. I know first hand that it is possible. I also know first hand that a person can’t make that change until she has chosen it for herself.

Not everyone will change. That is why it is important to cut off or severely limit contact for an extended period. It is important to remain physically safe during emotional recovery. However, by recognizing that positive change can occur, we give both victims and abusers the ability to consider improvement without complete losses, and more importantly, without shame.

Allow me to clarify that I do not advocate for victims to stay with their abusers. In fact, reunion often reestablishes patterns. I recommend a formal separation, contract with a therapist or restraining order for most to help them keep the boundaries clear. No loss is greater than the self. However, I advocate for seeing both victims and abusers as humans. This is exquisitely important because so many abusers were victims first. We can show them that they are salvageable at both ends. In other words, we do not interrupt the pattern until we do more than remove a victim from a violent situation.

If you know a victim and aren’t sure what to do, here is one way you can help: stop shaming. Stop shaking your head at the situation. Stop saying you don’t even understand how someone could let this happen. You are only layering their hurt and feeding the hungry head of hopelessness. Do you think she wanted this for herself? Do you think she imagined growing up and being with a man who hurts her and her family? Maybe she did. I did, because that was normal for me. In fact, I tried for years to get my husband to hurt me. I only stopped when he asked me why and the answer that popped out of my mouth was, “That’s how I know you love me.”

Stop shaming and reach out instead. Stop making assumptions and find out the truth. Stop letting the emotional portion slide. It is shocking to find out someone you know is being hurt. Worse when someone you know is doing the hurting. If you receive that information, offer solutions when they are requested. Say you wish it wasn’t happening. Say you’re available to help. Don’t make vigilante statements or offers; they contribute to the normalization of violence. The most effective action you can take is sitting silently with a victim after saying, “That must feel so sad.” With that action, you provide a safe, judgement free space where healing can begin.

I stayed because the world told me I deserved to be there. The world told me my abuser was right.